book review

Robert Harris: A Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma

Robert Harris is well known for his books of historical-fiction. His latest, from 2013, An Officer and a Spy is the true story of how a Jewish-French officer, Alfred Dreyfus is convicted, falsely as it turns out, of being a double-agent for the Germans around the turn of the 20th century, and sent to the Devil’s Island.  This is a good read for anyone who loves thrillers, and some ‘real life’ in their stories.

An officer of the French military intelligence, Georges Picquart begins an investigation into the Dreyfus case and soon discovers that the evidence brought forward during the espionage trial was doctored. A story of redemption woven into this, Picquart is convinced of guilt for many years. And the true spy is still at large and dangerous.

Harris provides the reader with real historical events and very plausible dialogue as he relates a suspenseful mystery.  He knows it is history, so the facts can be verified, and he takes care that injustice and truth are both the major themes within the book.

At 429 pages, it was for me, sadly too quick of a read, and I wanted to have more and wanted to read more of both Dreyfus and Picquart.  They have two very different lives and how they work together against bias, odds and prejudice is profound.  It questions how French dealt with their past and present.  In many ways I feel that the discomfort of the characters made it more moving- from emotional tolls, to the lack of care and compassion, it made it more moving to read.

I strongly recommend this author.  Harris is a good read, and although some of it is formulaic, he has the reader wanting more, and in this case longing to know who else could have been hurt by all this..  An officer and a Spy is well written with strong characters and a great plot.

All his books are quality-written. I also enjoyed Enigma, which featured the importance of cryptonography during WWII, and because it is more fiction based I was able to enjoy the emotional toll Harris brings to his readers in the form of his characters. The protagonist is an Alan Turing-type who struggles to decode the Germans’ ciphers.  His genius is on display, and the main characters are well developed and have a strong sense of moral codes- which they follow.  Unfortunately for me, it makes it a little less likeable since my personal preference is to have a more gray character.

Two other Harris’ titles that I have read, which are simply fiction or alternative history, but again feature true historical characters and brilliant plots are: Archangel, which takes place in post-Stalinist Russia, and deals with the dictator’s heir attempting to wrest control of the country; and Fatherland, which portrays a Germany twenty years after winning the Second World War, this book is along the line of Harry Turtledove and makes for a compelling read. A conspiracy is detected and if revealed would have global repercussions.

Both will entertain the reader with interestingly-plausible mysteries.



  • Lois

    Another good one, I like the use of white space, but I'm wishing you'll add to what you have to say!

    I've read Enigma, as well as An Officer and a Spy- and you can make a case that Harris knew more about mystery and POV and plot, as opposed to history.

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